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USDA’s Agricultural Research Service not to release ‘public-facing documents’

An internal memo to employees of the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service on Monday telling them not to release "any public-facing documents" caused a firestorm of criticism today, resulting in Michael Young, the civil servant serving as acting secretary, announcing that he had not seen the memo and did not approve it.

Young, who has worked at USDA for 33 years and heads the budget office, also released his own memo, which he said had been issued today.

Young said he asked all agency heads to send any policy-related material to the Office of the Secretary for review, but that he had not asked that any data releases, technical material or food safety notices be held up.

Told by a reporter that there were concerns the Trump administration doesn't want ARS to release scientific studies on climate change research, Young said,
"I am not reviewing scientific journal publications here."

Young also noted that he based his memo on a 2009 memo that was put out when President Barack Obama took power. Young said he showed the memo to Sam Clovis, the lead Trump aide at USDA, and that Clovis read it, but did not ask for any changes.

BuzzFeed News reported the initial ARS memo at 5:25 a.m. Later in the day other publications noted that the Environmental Protection Agency had also stopped the issuance of all grants, leading to conclusions that the Trump administration was interfering with scientific research.

Young made his statements in a hastily organized 5 p.m. telephone call that include a wide range of national reporters from major publications.

Before that call, Chris Bentley, the ARS director of communications, said in an email, "ARS issued an internal email to employees on Jan. 23 (text follows below) about agency informational products like news releases and social media content. Scientific publications, released through peer reviewed professional journals are not included."

"As the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America," Bentley said. Information on our projects, people, and locations are available on our website as always, at http://www.ars.usda.gov."

Bentley acknowledged that Sharon Drumm, the chief of staff to ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young, issued the following email on Monday at 12:58 p.m. before consultation with the Office of the Secretary:

"Hello again All — Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.

Please contact Director of Communications Chris Bentley with any questions about this guidance. Please also transmit to your employees as soon as feasible."

Bentley also noted in the email that ARS had issued a statement Monday that
ARS geneticist Edward Buckler will receive the National Academy of Science's first Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences. Buckler will receive the award for pioneering the use of large-scale genomic approaches to associate genes with crop traits.

Bentley said the release on Buckler showed that ARS was not holding back all information, but the actions at USDA and EPA — whether by Trump officials or cautious civil servants — had already put scientists on alert.

The Union of Concerned Scientists said that the situation at USDA and EPA "undermines vital public health and environmental protections, erodes public trust and violates the basic principles of science."

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, said in a statement, "These actions don't just threaten scientists — they threaten everyone in the country who breathes air, drinks water and eats food. These agency scientists carry out research in support of policies that protect our health and safety and help farmers, and it makes no sense to put up walls between them and the public, or unilaterally halt the work they do.

"Both the EPA and the USDA have developed scientific integrity policies that, among other things, protect scientists' right to speak out about their work. The American people deserve to know the results of taxpayer-funded research.

"Halting the EPA's grants and contracts is equally short-sighted and destructive. As we saw in past government shutdowns, you can't just turn scientific research on and off like a switch. We know that scientists can lose years of work, businesses can see investments lost and communities can be deprived of information they need to make good decisions. EPA grants and contracts include efforts like water safety testing and hazardous waste disposal — work that you can't just walk away from without exposing communities to preventable risks.

"If you care about clean air, clean water and policies that actually protect people, you need the best independent science — and actions like this make it harder for Americans to benefit from science.

"That the administration has moved so quickly to clamp down on scientists shows that the Trump administration is more focused on lifting rules on polluters than keeping our air and water clean.

"The scientific community is ready to fight back against any efforts to marginalize or suppress science and undermine science-based policies and research people depend on. More than 5,500 scientists have come together to say that President Trump must respect the role of science. These actions are the clearest sign yet that he isn't living up to that standard."

Liz Purchia, a head of EPA public affairs and adviser to then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, told Politico, "It's a dark time right now. People are nervous and they are scared about what they can and can't do. They don't want to get in trouble and they want to do the right thing.

"It's ironic that Trump based his entire campaign on Twitter and social media and now he's preventing the staff that work from him from communicating with the public."

A former research employee at USDA also noted that there are guidelines in place on scientific material.

 

— The Hagstrom Report